Helping women to break the glass ceiling in academia

Gardiner, Maria; Tiggermann, Marika; Kearns, Hugh and Marshall, Kelly, 2007: ‘Show me the money! An empirical analysis of mentoring outcomes for women in academia’, Higher Education Research & Development, Vol. 26, No 4, pp. 425-442

In the last past months I’ve written a great deal on women in academia and the disadvantages that they suffer in terms of promotion, access to grants and interesting career prospects. This article addresses the same topic from a different perspective: it addresses what can be done to spawn a change in academia, and the answer that the authors give is mentoring.  

The data analysed in this article are related to a mentoring programme conducted at Flinders University in Australia. The project involved 22 female academics, mostly at Level B (lecturer), who had been employed by the university for around 5 years and were offered the possibility of joining a mentoring scheme. In order to assess the progress of this group another control group of 46 women with similar characteristics but not involved in mentoring was chosen. 

The article starts by presenting some well-known statistics and reasons for women’s lack advancement of in academia. The authors focus on the following reasons:

  • Lack of networking opportunities
  • Lower level of advancement in women’s research careers compared to their male colleagues

Some of these elements work in a vicious circle:

Women are unable to successfully apply for research grants because they do not have enough publications, but are unable to publish because they do not have adequate funding to conduct research. This would lead to poorer research ‘track records’ for women than for men, contributing to slower rates of career advancement.” (p. 427)

Mentoring is identified by the authors as an initiative that can increase the proportion of women in senior positions. Mentoring can be defined as “an informal process, in which the mentor and the mentee spontaneously form a relationship with the purpose of assisting the mentee in developing career-relevant skills” (p. 427). As the authors explain, several universities in Australia have launched mentoring programmes to assistin the learning and developing of their staff

According to the authors, many studies have shown the benefits of mentoring, including improved career outcomes and increased career satisfaction.

So, what was the outcome of their research?

  • Women that received mentoring were more likely to stay at the university, improving   female staff retention figures.
  • Those participating in the mentoring programme were more successful at securing external research grants than those in the group not benefiting from mentoring.
  • Mentees were promoted faster than those not participating in the mentoring scheme.
  • Mentees had a better publication record than those in the other group.

However, there were two areas in which both groups had almost similar results: career satisfaction and job satisfaction.  As the authors conclude:

Our findings indicate that, in the long term, mentoring seems mostly to affect mentees’ global sense of confidence as an academic, and in the short-term it reduces worries about research. However, our findings also indicate mentoring has minimal effect on career and job satisfaction” (p. 439).

I found this last conclusion very interesting, because it reveals how mentoring can help women to progress in academia, but does not necessarily make women at work happier.  This finding suggests that although mentoring or coaching can help women to progress in their careers, academia is, for a variety of reasons, an unfriendly place for women.

I would be interested to know why women progressing in their careers are still not happy. Is it that they need to work more than men for the same returns? Is it that women find it difficult to combine their careers as academics with their families?

I find mentoring and coaching in academia extremely interesting (I’m doing a PG in coaching). Somehow I think it’s not enough to leave all the responsibility for advancing her career to the individual. Mentoring and coaching in academia need to come with some sort of commitment from universities that they will make themselves more friendly to women and  minorities.


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